"The children loved it," said UEFA European U17 Championship tournament director Joe Cassar after local youngsters met with players as part of the Reach Out campaign.
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Many of the teams visiting Malta for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship have met with local schoolchildren as part of the Reach Out campaign.
The Malta Football Association (MFA)'s Reach Out initiative was created as a means of sending an open invitation to all sectors of the community to get involved with the U17 finals. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, with various schools from across the island applying for tickets for the matches.
The results of the MFA's campaign have already been evident, with more than 7,000 supporters turning up to Malta's opening game against England and an aggregate matchday one attendance of around 13,000.
Numerous other groups have been encouraged to participate, with several local football nurseries requesting tickets. Furthermore, projects such as 'Football for all' and 'Football without frontiers' have helped to mobilise less fortunate individuals. Members of Special Olympics Malta, for example, have been incorporated into the Reach Out initiative.
The U17 final takes place on UEFA Grassroots Day – 21 May – though the MFA will be marking this occasion on the day of the semis, 18 May. One hour before the first last-four fixture, Special Olympics players and nursery youngsters will take part in a unified football event at the Centenary Stadium, next to the Ta 'Qali National Stadium. Additionally, there will be skills activities staged at half-time of the first semi-final.
Schools have been rewarded with training equipment and, in some cases, free transport to matches. Some of the most fortunate children have even been invited to train with the players themselves. Indeed many of the teams at the tournament have devoted at least part of one of their sessions to meeting the youngsters. The kids have been lucky enough to exchange passes with the future stars, who have posed for photos and passed on small gifts.
"It was our dream to get schoolkids meeting these national U17 players and the children just loved it," said tournament director Joe Cassar. Paul Falzon, administrator at the local Sirens FC youth academy, added: "Our boys were eager to ask the players about their lifestyle and what playing in the national team means."
UEFA and the MFA are confident that such initiatives have served to promote football in Malta and will stand the island nation in good stead for years to come. Maltese children have been handed a unique opportunity which, it is hoped, will help enrich them socially, educationally and culturally. One 12-year-old boy said: "Wow, what an experience!"